We hear from clinicians every week about their experiences treating patients on the front lines of the pandemic. These stories are often tough to hear — trying to convince their patients to wear a mask in the exam room, calming down their crying children before leaving for a shift at the hospital, even rummaging around for garbage bags and duct tape when their clinic ran out of PPE.
Unfortunately, now more than a year into the pandemic, we continue to ask the impossible from our doctors and nurses: to put aside their trauma, power through their grief, and keep sacrificing their own physical and mental wellbeing to focus on ours.
We can’t continue to ask clinicians to take care of us when we aren’t taking care of them.
Especially when we acknowledge clinicians were already burned out at an alarmingly high rate before the pandemic. So our team set out to better understand the long-term costs of the pandemic.
We surveyed 2,000 people about their healthcare experiences over the last year in order to answer:
How has clinician burnout impacted the patient experience?
Are patients contributing to clinician burnout?
Do people still value working in healthcare?
Is our failure to support clinicians harming the health of our country?
The findings from our study were grim. Four in five people said their doctor or nurse seemed stressed and overwhelmed during a recent healthcare visit. Even more concerning, one in three people said they believe their quality of care may have been affected by clinician burnout.
The study also foreshadowed significant problems with the growing shortage of clinicians. One in three people no longer see the value in going to medical school and two in five people don’t want their children to become a doctor or nurse. Widespread reports about clinicians leaving the workforce are also hitting close to home. One in four people said they personally knew a doctor or nurse that would switch careers if they could.
People admitted where their own behavior could be contributing to the crisis. Two in three people agreed resistance to wearing masks could be contributing to clinician burnout. One in three people also shared they’ve relied on their primary care clinicians for help with mental health needs instead of discussing with a trained mental health specialist.
Finally, our study uncovered an unsettling finding. One in eight people said their doctor or nurse admitted they were struggling with their own mental health condition during a recent healthcare visit. This demonstrates not only a cry for help but a clear example of clinician burnout entering the exam room.
So where do we go from here? Above all else, the healthcare industry needs to take a hard look in the mirror.
The toll and trauma of the pandemic is not just harming clinicians, it’s harming patients. As someone who built a company around the idea that “happier clinicians make healthier patients,” I wasn’t surprised to see these results. But I was disheartened. Clinicians shouldn’t have to work so hard to earn our attention and appreciation. Especially when the patient experience is suffering.
We also need to acknowledge that clinicians won’t be able to return to “normal” once the pandemic is over.
And they don’t want to return to normal. While doctors and nurses are often celebrated as heroes, we need to remember they’re often working under pressure and exposed to trauma. We’re overdue for addressing the well-known and widespread mental health stigma in the healthcare community. Steps like passing the Dr. Lorna Breen bill will help to normalize conversations on burnout and suicide.
Finally, we have to prioritize the looming workforce shortage.
If clinicians are thinking about quitting — and the general public is second-guessing the value of medical school altogether — we’re in trouble. An important first step is acknowledging why so many clinicians are turning in their resignation letters. Some of the top reasons for burnout before the pandemic included bureaucratic tasks, long shifts, and lack of respect from administrators. These are all problems that still exist today and will continue to get in their way of providing great care to patients.
Since we can’t create millions of clinicians overnight, we should be open to encouraging clinicians to explore a “new way to work” in healthcare. For example, working in virtual care offers clinicians an easy way to see their in-person patients and treat new patients remotely. Virtual care also provides clinicians with the flexibility of working from home so they can spend more time with their families. Advocating for new career paths can make a positive impact on clinicians, their patients, and their families.
There has been a lot of talk about pandemic “silver linings”. While it’s easy to look at our healthcare system and assume it will always be broken and slow-moving, I see an incredible opportunity to reimagine the clinician experience. To prioritize their needs and encourage them to ask for help when they need it most. To help them focus on providing great care to patients. And to express our sincere gratitude for keeping us safe and healthy during the pandemic.